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Pool & Pills: How Did they Meet? ~ John Langwig

Being in the pool business and having invented a game that involves the ubiquitous Kelly Pills and shake bottle, I wondered what the pills were originally for and why there are sixteen of them.

Players who have seen the bottle and pills a million times don’t know much about them. Up until quite recently every new pool table came with a bottle and pills as part of the accessories.

Attempting to track the origin of the pills and bottle brings one back to America in the first half of the 19th century when billiard parlors first began to appear in the cities. We know that the invention of the pills precedes the game of Kelly, and although the exact date and original purpose of the pills is lost in the fog of history, a look at how pool was played yields some possible answers.

These early rooms had tables, but no balls.

Players from this era owned not only a cue, but a set of three or four Carom billiards balls. Three balls was the most common, but you can find both kinds of sets for sale today. If you went to the billiard parlor, you would bring the balls with you. These sets most commonly consist of one red ball and two white balls, although some have a red, a white, and a yellow.

When reading periodicals and literary references to billiards from the nineteenth century, mention was often made of a person working in the billiard parlor whose job title was Billiard Marker. References to the Billiard Marker can be found as early as 1800.

The games they played in that era were scored on points, and someone was certainly needed to record the scoring. While the Markersí duties are variously listed as collecting money, keeping the peace, and keeping score for the players on a chalkboard, there may have been another job that helps explain the job title.

Picture yourself in 1830 going to the billiard parlor to play.

When you come into the room there might be a few people already playing carom billiards and they all have the exact same set of balls that you brought with you. But over at another table are four friends of yours and they suggest that you five players put your balls together and play the new game of the day ìPoolî.

The game called Pool is an old game, with rules first appearing in print around 1820. It is a game that any number of players could play. So, a pool of players would pool their balls, and pool a wager, and play Pool. When colored balls became available, the game was played with them.

Pool has a complex point scoring system and a marker board was regularly used. The Billiard Markersí duties included marking the scores. Pool, and its successor Pyramid, quickly overtook English and carom billiards in popularity, at least in America. But, how did the players ìpoolîù their balls together and still go home with the same ones they brought?

I believe that to solve this dilemma one of the jobs of the Billiard Marker, one of the duties that earned him the title, was to mark numbers on the balls as they were brought in, so that each player knew which balls were his. It is not much of a stretch to postulate that this practice was the origin of numbered pool balls. Russian Pyramid to this day is played with all white balls with numbers on them.

But, of course, that is only half the story because after marking the balls the Billiard Marker needed a token to give to each player. This is where the pills come in.

The oldest pill sets we see are ivory or bone, probably fashioned from broken billiard balls.

Early pill sets could number twenty or more, and in both games, Pool and Pyramid, mention is made of up to 21 balls in play. There is ample evidence that the pills preceded the leather shake bottle we now store them in. This would all make sense if the original purpose of the pills was a token to give players in order to keep track of which balls they brought. The pills could be kept in a bag or wherever worked for the players.

The traditional Pill bottle that we still use today has a unique shape, but not if you look at beer bottles from the 1870s where one will note a striking similarity, right down to the lip of the bottle.

This seems like more than a coincidence, and again not much of a stretch to conclude that a beer bottle was the original container. It would also explain the size of the pills themselves. They fit perfectly in a beer bottle, I know, because Iíve seen it happen.

By the last quarter of the century 1875-1900, Pyramid was increasingly popular, and was being played with fifteen balls. If you wanted to play, youíd go to a billiard parlor and pool your balls with some other players. With Pyramid being the dominant game, it was evident that what the Billiard Marker needed was a set of pills for each table playing Pyramid, and each bottle needed exactly sixteen pills to mark the balls in play. I believe this is why there are sixteen pills in the set even today.

In 1894 Calistus ìKellyî Mulvaney of Chicago invented Kelly Pool and the true calling for the pills was found.

Kelly Pool came to dominate the American Pool scene for the next 35 years or so, and the peas became known to everyone as Kelly Pills. To this day, if you want to buy numbered billiard balls in Great Britain, just ask for a set of Kelly balls, because thatís what the British call the numbered balls.

And what became of the Billiard Marker?

By the turn of the century inexpensive resin balls and even cheaper clay balls in numbered sets of sixteen were the norm and cheap enough so that you no longer had to bring your own balls to the pool room. After the pool halls were able to afford their own sets of balls, and games that required scoring of points were passed over, the job of Billiard Marker was no longer necessary, and the job became a casualty of progress.

Editor: Dana Gornall

Photo: Shawn Nystrand/Flickr

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